The quest to be NASCAR’s best begins for 16 drivers, as they embark on 10-track, nine-state, three time-zone quest that will take them from Las Vegas to Dover to Phoenix and Miami (and points in between).
With Jimmie Johnson failing to qualify, there is no playoff driver with more than one Cup title. Ten playoff drivers, including Denny Hamlin, seek their first Cup championship. One, William Byron, is making his first playoff appearance.
TV: NASCAR America presents coverage of Playoff Media Day at 6 p.m. ET Thursday
TV: NASCAR America Burnout Boulevard Driven by Goodyear airs at 7 p.m. ET Thursday
The next two months are likely to feature frayed nerves, epic celebrations and tight racing. Who will have the honor of being called NASCAR champion in Miami?
We’re about to find out. The journey begins Sunday (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Until then, here are 16 things to ponder about this playoff field:
1. Still Perfect: While Jimmie Johnson will miss the playoffs for the first time in his career, crew chief Chad Knaus will continue his streak of taking part in every playoff season.
This will be Knaus’ 16th consecutive year in the playoffs. The first 15 were with Johnson. This year, Knaus is with William Byron, who is making his first playoff appearance.
Only one other crew chief has been in more than 10 consecutive playoffs. Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, will be making his 12th consecutive appearance in the playoffs.
2. Streaking: While Johnson’s streak is over, Kyle Busch has an impressive streak going. He has made it to the championship race in Miami each of the past four years. Busch won the title in 2015, finished third in 2016, placed second in 2017 and was fourth last year.
3. Most to prove in the playoffs: Chevrolet. The manufacturer has not had a car make it to the championship race since 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won the last of his seven championships. Chevrolet has five cars in the playoffs this year (Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch) and failing to make the championship race a third year in a row would only add to Chevy’s embarrassment.
4. Members only: Six of the 16 drivers in the playoffs have won a Cup title: Kurt Busch (2004), Brad Keselowski (2012), Kevin Harvick (2014), Kyle Busch (2015), Martin Truex Jr. (2017), Joey Logano (2018).
5. So long ago: Kurt Busch is seeking to set a record for the longest gap between championships. He won his lone Cup crown in 2004. The record is 12 years between titles. Terry Labonte won his first crown in 1984 and his second title in 1996.
6. Most pit road speeding penalties in regular season: No, it’s not Denny Hamlin. It’s his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, who has five.
Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano each had no pit road speeding penalties in the first 26 races of the season.
7. Most playoff wins (by current title contender): 13 by Kevin Harvick (Jimmie Johnson has 29 wins in the playoffs is not in the playoffs this year).
8. Most consecutive playoff appearances — Kevin Harvick is making his 10th consecutive playoff appearance, the longest active streak.
9. Familiar refrain: Kyle Larson enters the playoffs winless in his last 72 points races (he did win the non-points All-Star Race in May). During that winless streak, Larson has finished second nine times (12.5% of the time). Since his last win at Richmond in September 2017, here are the races Larson has finished second and who he finished behind:
Sept 24, 2017 — New Hampshire (Kyle Busch won)
March 18, 2018 — Auto Club (Martin Truex Jr. won)
April 15, 2018 — Bristol (Kyle Busch won)
June 3, 2018 — Pocono (Martin Truex Jr. won)
July 1, 2018 — Chicago (Kyle Busch won)
Aug. 18, 2018 — Bristol (Kurt Busch won)
Sept. 16, 2018 — Las Vegas (Brad Keselowski)
June 30, 2019 — Chicago (Alex Bowman won)
10. Bet on 1 at Las Vegas: Vegas native Kurt Busch has the best average finish among the playoff drivers at 1.5-mile tracks this season. Busch, who won at Kentucky in July, has an average finish of 9.29 at 1.5-mile tracks.
Joey Logano, who won at Las Vegas in March, is next with an average finish of 9.71 at 1.5-mile tracks this year. Ryan Blaney has the worst average finish among playoff drivers at 1.5-mile tracks this year at 20.71.
11. Then again, maybe you should play the 2 and 22 at Vegas: Brad Keselowski, who won last year’s playoff opener at Las Vegas, has eight consecutive top-10 finishes there. Team Penske teammate Joey Logano has seven consecutive top 10s there.
12. Most Popular Champion: Reigning most popular driver Chase Elliott might be overlooked by some but consider this: On the eight playoff tracks that have hosted a Cup race this season, Elliott scored the most points (324) among the playoff drivers.
Joey Logano is next at 301 points and then comes Kevin Harvick at 292 points. Ryan Newman ranks last with 184 points.
13. No pay, no play(offs): Only one of the last 31 playoff races has been won by a non-playoff driver.
14. Miles to be run in the 10 playoff races: 3,726.1
15. Miles if one were to drive from track to track for each of the 10 playoff races: 10,362. For perspective, Beijing is 7,126 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina, the sport’s hub … Auckland, New Zealand is 8,324 miles from Charlotte … Tokyo, site of the 2020 Olympics, is 6,879 miles from Charlotte.
16. Left out: Kyle Busch is on a 12-race winless streak, his longest drought since 2017-18. All three of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have won since Busch’s last victory: Martin Truex Jr. (Sonoma), Denny Hamlin (Pocono, Bristol) and Erik Jones (Darlington).
Sept. 15 – Las Vegas (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Sept. 21 – Richmond (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Sept. 29 – Charlotte Roval (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Oct. 6 – Dover (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Oct. 13 – Talladega (2 p.m. ET, NBC)
Oct. 20 – Kansas (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Oct. 27 – Martinsville (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Nov. 3 – Texas (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)
Nov. 10 – Phoenix (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)
Nov. 17 – Miami (3 p.m. ET, NBC)
Driver points standings entering the playoffs
2045 – Kyle Busch
2030 – Denny Hamlin
2029 – Martin Truex Jr.
2028 – Kevin Harvick
2028 – Joey Logano
2024 – Brad Keselowski
2018 – Chase Elliott
2011 – Kurt Busch
2005 – Alex Bowman
2005 – Erik Jones
2005 – Kyle Larson
2004 – Ryan Blaney
2001 – William Byron
2001 – Aric Almirola
2000 – Clint Bowyer
2000 – Ryan Newman